E-print firm on a roll

You can't get more 'old economy' than the print industry, but Ruth Winchester found one print firm that has opened its eyes to...

You can't get more 'old economy' than the print industry, but Ruth Winchester found one print firm that has opened its eyes to e-commerce

Printing has been poetically described as "the business of smearing ink on dead trees". It's a hands-on industrial operation which lends itself more readily to images of dirty overalls and filthy fingers than to a vision of super-efficient digital business.

Yet one company has launched itself into the on-line revolution with remarkable success. Formed through a management buyout in 1996, Astron squeezed three old-tech printing businesses together and wrought a dynamic new e-business in the process.

The driving force behind this radical culture change has been its chief executive, David Mitchell. In the past four years Astron has doubled its workforce from 200 to 400, and sales of £13m have shot up to £35m.

The firm has made the difficult transition between old- and new-tech remarkably successfully, with traditional business still accounting for about £15m sales.

Astron has developed a full range of e-support services, delivered to an array of large, prestigious clients including BUPA, British Airways, RAC, Granada Compass and Scottish Power. These range from on-site reprographics services to sophisticated on-line purchasing, ordering and stock query functions. The business is divided into five vertical markets - financial services, healthcare, communications, and airline and travel - each identified as a growth sector, each with its own specialist team of staff.

"There was a lot of froth, a lot of excitement around at the time about e-working, and I wanted to apply that to traditional business," says Mitchell.

The first step was to replace external IT contractors and consultants with in-house software engineers - a decision he describes as, "a leap of faith". "In trying to create value, you still have to make a profit," he argues, "and yet we'd hired these guys, and we weren't going to see any return on that investment for at least 18 months."

Astron's take-off may have been aided by the fact that it got in at the start with many of its clients. Mitchell says one of the firm's strengths has been its willingness to work alongside clients in developing new solutions, rather than trying to offer a ready-made package.

He says, "We found ourselves in a very collaborative situation with a lot of customers - it was a joint learning process, about talking to them and understanding their vision. I guess we were quite small, so we were never a threat to big blue-chip clients, they just saw us as a testing ground for their ideas.

"There was a great deal of honesty - we worked with customers, and they thought it was fantastic - they loved it. Around the same time, lots of bigger organisations were trying to roll out the model solution on their own, and they failed."

Mitchell is also a great believer in a re-circulating approach to developing services. Thus, for example, a system developed with British Airways for clearing credit cards online was subsequently made available to other Astron customers.

Work with BUPA, the company's first full-blown online customer, made it possible for them to interrogate stock, place orders and track progress of an order, all over the Internet, and will make it possible for other clients to set up similar arrangements.

Mitchell admits that the massive change the company and its employees have been through has been tough at times. He acknowledges that management issues were sometimes unexpected, saying, "You have to adapt to managing knowledge, rather than managing tangible outcomes. In terms of productivity normally it is about faster, better, cheaper. But our outputs now are far less tangible than if you are making widgets. You need a different management model.

"My lack of IT understanding was another thing," he adds. "From my point of view I couldn't understand how these guys [software engineers], who had so much to do, could pack up and go home at 5pm on the dot. What I didn't understand was that they could be working from home, linked in, or that they could have been there all weekend. It was humbling. I don't think of it as a mistake, more as a lack of appreciation for the way someone else worked."

So was there much kicking and screaming from non-technical staff? Mitchell says "kicking and screaming is a bit dramatic", but admits that there were culture differences which needed careful handling.

"Jargon dyslexia" was one of the main ones, he says, and that was reasonably easy to deal with by making sure everyone felt able to ask questions, and by having people who could "translate" where necessary. Company-wide IT courses and full-time coaches helped all staff, from warehouse to sales team, to become e-literate. "It's about creating an environment where there is no fear," Mitchell adds.

Given that Astron seems to be making a go of the unlikely alliance between e-commerce and traditional printing values, what would Mitchell say to people considering a similarly unconventional move? "You have to be fast on your feet," he says. "Hack out the bureaucracy. Don't have meetings you don't need, don't get bogged down. Keep your project team small, give them the freedom to explore, but give them clear terms of reference.

"Listen to customers - work with them. One new idea that a customer offers you for free is worth 100 you will get from a consultant."

"Apart from that," he adds, "keep developing the vision, keep it simple, and if in doubt, if it doesn't add value, don't do it. Be ruthless."

Astron's e-business solutions

Astron offers the full range of logistics based on its Astroweb system, written in-house.

Astroweb is based on Microsoft's NT platform, with a Microsoft SQL server. The back-end is a Unix database.

Customers access Astron's online services at its Web site, using a password login. Astroweb is structured so that after login every customer gets access to their own range of products, with a corresponding list of their delivery points.

There are a series of different levels of access, so that different users from the same customer get different options - for example a BUPA customer from one hospital can only see the products relevant to that hospital.

Astron then fulfils orders from sites around the UK, including Slough, London, Bristol, Huntingdon, Derby, Glasgow and Warrington.

Online card validation, clearing and authorisation is done by NatWest Bank, via software written by Retail Logic.

Astron has just set up an arrangement with British School of Motoring to host its Web site, from which visitors will be able to order a range of things from booklets and training manuals to driving lessons.

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